SANTA CLARA - LaMichael James wants the ball in his hands. Injuries to several prominent teammates this offseason are making that wish come true.
When the 49ers' offseason practices got under way this week, both Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter were on side fields working out with trainers. That made James the team's No. 1 running back.
The second-year tailback got into the lineup last year only after Hunter went down with an Achilles' tendon injury against New Orleans on Nov. 25.
James made an immediate impact in the final month of the season, averaging 4.6 yards a carry as Gore's backup and 29.8 yards on kickoff returns.
This year, he wants to add punt returns to his repertoire, and he promises to get plenty of chances.
Last season's primary return man, Ted Ginn, signed a free-agent deal with Carolina in March, while Ginn's top backup from a year ago, Kyle Williams, is recovering from a knee injury.
James helped out returning punts during the 2012 exhibition season, but he struggled badly with Candlestick Park's swirling winds and wasn't given any opportunities once the regular season began. He seemed more comfortable in the role Tuesday. James, wide receivers Chad Hall and Quinton Patton, cornerback Perrish Cox and quarterback B.J. Daniels all took turns hauling in punts from Andy Lee.
James said he sees himself as the No. 1 option on both punt and kickoff returns.
"Definitely. You've got to think like that," he said. "Any opportunity to get the ball in my hands, I'm all for it. Catching the ball, running he ball, punts - no matter what it is, I'm all for it. I just want to help the team win any way I can."
James said he also wanted to get stronger to be a more rugged runner and to be a more effective pass protector, something that prevented him from getting onto the field sooner last season. To that end, he's added 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason and currently is at 205 pounds, the heaviest he's been in his life.
"I'm way more explosive," he said. "I always felt like I was long-fast. I didn't really know how explosive I was. But I really worked hard on that - just being more explosive."